Common UI elements — buttons, menus and common actions —are a very significant part of what makes a site or app useful. The “chrome” as these elements are called, is being minimized in favor of increasing the amount of valuable content on the screen. In theory, Minimal UI is a solid approach; the intent is certainly noble and logical.

But hiding those elements, while certainly trendy, comes at a cost that many designers, developers and organizations are slowly waking up to.

Take our ubiquitous friend the hamburger menu, for instance. Originally designed for small 5-inch mobile screens, it’s also becoming widespread across apps and sites for larger tablets, laptops and desktops. And it confuses the hell out of people in those use cases.

Designers, developers and tech folks tell me, “everyone uses the hamburger, so people are used to it now.” But what I hear much more often, from a much wider swath of users across age groups from 17 to 70, is “how the hell do I…”

So I’m calling bullshit on the “people are used to it” bit. The people who are used to it are tech-savvy by nature and by discipline, and are mostly comprised of first- and early-adopters. Exploration and discovery constitute a positive user experience for them, so a Minimal UI approach makes sense.

The majority of users, however, are not so inclined.

The only studies I’ve seen over the past 12 months that support the use of minimalist chrome on larger screens are most definitely on the self-serving side. Numbers can (and are) manipulated to serve many an author’s purpose. So I take stock in what I see and experience in my work with clients and their users and customers — and the basic principles of design which have remained unassailably true for several hundred years now.

Those principles — combined with what I’ve experienced, particularly over the past 12 months, tell me this:

  1. Icons without labels are worse than labels alone. Designers seem to believe that icons or pictures provide a greater degree of recognition while saving screen space. In fact, icons and images used for navigation with no accompanying text go largely unused — because they’re vague
  2. Less chrome means users have to work harder to discover it, particularly when it’s hidden beneath a gesture (Windows 8, I’m looking at you). If an opportunity to interact is not visible, they assume it’s not available. Mobile device users incur a great deal of trial and error that has to happen before they discover that there is a significant set of hidden navigation options
  3. They usually make this discovery by accident — which means that they have to remember how they got to it in the first place. Which violates the first rule of usability: recognition over recall.
  4. If they do remember how to get to it, it doesn’t stick. The cognitive friction created by this experience never evolves into an intuitive experience. Which, by the way, really means “single-trial learning.” The friction created remains present, even if from that point forward they know the menu exists and know how to get to it. The moments of doubt and hesitation that exist in revealing the menu and clicking an option never go away.

All of this is enough, through repeated use, to make people abandon the app or system altogether.

On a small screen, it makes sense to maximize the value of every pixel with minimal UI design. Consider the evolution of wearable devices, where form factor dictates that gestures are the only way to go. In this context, less chrome makes all the sense in the world. But on larger screens, meaning mini-tablets and up — the space you save doesn’t justify the loss of discoverability and information scent.

In this scenario, when your majority audience are not first and early adopters, this game of hide-and-seek is costly. At best, the loss of user trust and loyalty will slowly drive away potential users. At worst, those potential users are potential revenue — which you will never see.

It’s easy to allow current trends to inform your work, and it’s always wise to keep one eye on industry trends and patterns. But you must trust your judgment first and foremost, and lean hard on the basic principles of good design. Above all else, don’t ever adopt a practice without first thinking very hard about whether it really applies to your audience.

Announcing my upcoming book, Think First!

Announcing Think First, the upcoming book on UX strategy from Joe NatoliI truly believe Think First is unlike no other book on the subject of UX strategy. Instead of addressing the narrow, tactical pieces of the design process, Think First shows you everything that must be considered to create great UX — and gives you a roadmap to make it happen.

Think First details my no-nonsense approach to creating  successful products, powerful user experiences and very happy customers.

The book shares lessons learned from my 25 years as a UX consultant to Fortune 100 organizations. You’ll find step-by-step methods and straightforward, jargon-free advice that can be applied to anything you’re designing or building. Here are just some of the things you’ll learn:

  • Simple user research methods that anyone
    can conduct and apply
  • The right questions to ask stakeholders and users
    at the outset of any project
  • The 3 crucial questions you must ask of every
    client, every time
  • How to tell the difference between what people say
    they need
    vs. what they really need
  • A better, simpler way to generate meaningful
    UX requirements 
    at the outset of the project.
  • How to avoid scope creep and the never-ending
    project scenario

Think First will be available in Spring of 2015, as an exclusive hardcover edition, eBook and audiobook format for all device platforms. As we move closer to publication, I will share updates and excerpts from Think First — stay tuned!

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If you’d like to get more advice from me every month on UX, UI and Product Design + Development topics — in the form of training videos, full-length courses, e-books, downloadable templates and more — check out my NEW online school, the UX 365 Academy. Every month I publish new content, and you also have access to every course, book and training video I’ve ever created — some of which have never been published online before now.

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